For most designers fashion's Holy Grail is to transform, twice-yearly, the way we dress.
Others aim higher, dreaming instead of changing the world, or at least its appearance, in a more far-reaching way. For 40 years now, Issey Miyake has aspired to just that. First came Pleats Please. "For me, it's a very powerful idea to actually change the meaning of something," he once told me. "Like the Walkman, for example. You know, it completely changed the idea of sound, and that's great. My dream, and the reason I first decided to open my studio, was that I thought to myself, 'If I could one day make clothes like T-shirts and jeans, I would be very excited.'
"But the more I worked, the more I felt very far away from doing so," he continued. "I was always doing such heavy things, far away from the people. 'Are you stupid?' I said to myself. 'Don't you remember why you started designing in the first place?' And then I thought, 'Okay, Pleats Please.' So I began to think how to make it, how to wash it, how to co-ordinate it, even how to pack it. And I worked on how to keep the price down."
Miyake started working with pleats in his main collection as far back as 1988. Since that time, though, it has attained a line and life of its own, is indeed more reasonably priced than might be imagined, and is as easy to care for as any woman could wish. Machine wash it, roll it into a pleated snake and cram it into a suitcase from where it will emerge, suitably springy, and unscathed. Devotees include the architect Zaha Hadid and the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes – both women who know a thing or two about aesthetics and, not insignificantly, have demanding professional lives. In its native Japan, meanwhile, Pleats Please is ubiquitous. "At first, people said it was difficult," Miyake continued. "But to make people wonder is also very important. It's a very good entrance. I like people to enjoy seeing things in a new way, but I also want them not to worry. One of the great things about being a clothing designer is that it leaves people free to choose for themselves."
With this in mind, a little over a decade later Miyake, in collaboration with Dai Fujiwara, came up with the equally innovative A-POC (A Piece of Cloth), taking an unusually democratic mindset further still.
Out of a single piece of brightly coloured cloth, complete with dotted lines courtesy of the designer, the customer is asked to cut out her own outfit. She may decide whether her skirt should be long or short, whether a T-shirt should be a vest, have capped sleeves, or reach down to her fingertips. And so forth.
Not long after this 1999 launch, Miyake stepped down, leaving Fujiwara responsible for both A-POC and his main line. Not that he retired. Instead, he concentrated on opening Tokyo's first design museum, 21_21 Design Sight – designed by Tadao Ando, funded by the Miyake Issey Foundation, and which opened its doors in 2007. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, he set up the Reality Lab – a team of young designers and engineers with whom he works with a view to developing pioneering clothing in materials to match. Last month in Paris, after a 13-year hiatus, the irrepressible septuagenarian unveiled the first brilliantly high-impact result – 132 5. Issey Miyake. Miyake followers can see it at the Barbican's Future Beauty exhibition and, from this week, will be able to buy it themselves at the Issey Miyake store in London's Conduit Street.
According to the powers that be at the company, 132 5. springs from "a union between mathematics and clothes-making". It uses new computer software created by one Professor Jun Mitani of the University of Tsukuba, who was, apparently, more than a little surprised when Miyake's team contacted him. The computer scientist's work has, until now, concentrated more on abstracted theories than anything as user-friendly, or indeed as earthly, as clothing. "Actually using their research to make something is quite rare," Miyake has since said.
Miyake adds today that the idea for 132 5. sprang from his curation of the 21st Century Man exhibition at the aforementioned museum.
"When I was working on that I had the opportunity to visit many local production areas of Japan." he says. "During these visits I saw the difficult problems they faced, and thought a lot about the making of things in Japan. I felt that I myself had to start doing something to change the present situation, and decided on this new project.
"By doing so I wish to raise certain questions. What should we be doing for the future of manufacture? How can we promote the traditional culture and technology of Japan? And how do we create things that can be carried over to future generations? Constant research and development, especially in the field of materials, is also important for me."
In store, 132 5. is presented as flat as the proverbial pancake, only to be unfolded by a woman wishing to wear it – who does so stepping into a skirt, say, pulling on a jacket or a vest over her head, and fastening all garments to her body via typically functional press studs and ties. Folded flat into highly appealing shapes, unworn these are objects of beauty in their own right, almost asking to be framed and put up on the wall. Miyake has long flirted with this idea also; many of the early pleated pieces were captured as still lives by the discerning eye of Irving Penn.
The designer has always insisted, however, that his designs only truly come to life when worn. And so these do, jutting out in interesting and thought-provoking angles, but always aesthetically harmonious and – perhaps surprisingly – flattering to boot.
Whichever way one looks at it, 132 5. ticks many boxes. It does indeed reference Japanese tradition – itsaffinity to the ancient craft of origami is obvious to even the least-accustomed eye – as well as looking to the future in typically Japanese fashion by using pioneering fabric technology, the result of which is unusually arresting clothes. 132 5. is made out of recyclable materials, going some way towards ensuring that it does less harm to the planet.
Most of all though: "I think it's important to think about the relationship between design and society," states Issey Miyake. "Fashion is about change, but at the same time it's important to continue making things. I wish future generations to discover the possibility of design, to discover the joy of making things. I wish to say, 'Let's keep making things together.'"Reuse content